And the winner is…?

27 March 2012 | This 'n' that

Playing your cards right: Todd Zuniga talks to Riikka Pulkkinen on 20 March in Helsinki. Photo: courtesy/T. Zuniga

The writer Johanna Sinisalo’s words lash the stage like the tail of Pessi the troll in her best-known novel. The novelist Riikka Pulkkinen bursts into deconstructive dance. The singer Anni Mattila translates the poet Teemu Manninen’s explosive poetic frolics into rhythmic dictations and the Finlandia Prize-winning author Rosa Liksom’s conductor’s glittering moustaches see the audience off on a train journey to Moscow.

On a March evening, a Literary Death Match has begun in the Korjaamo Culture Factory in Helsinki’s old tramsheds. The creation of the American author and journalist Todd Zuniga, the Literary Death Match combines an evening of readings with stand-up comedy as well as the judging familiar from reality TV shows.

‘It all started with me eating sushi with two of my friends and talking about some of the readings we’d been to. We all loved literature and loved to listen to writers reading from their own work. But the audience was always the same circle of people. We wanted to expand it beyond literary circles,’ Zuniga explains.

Four writers compete in two rounds, and three judges select the finalists based on literary merit, performance and ‘intangibles’. The time limit is seven minutes, after which the host loads his toy gun and lets the barrel speak. Going over time is no obstacle to getting through to the next round, as was seen in Helsinki. ‘It isn’t dead serious, after all,’ Zuniga says.

Helsinki is the forty-first Literary Death Match city, and the evening’s competition was number 207. The first Literary Death Match was staged in New York in 2006, since when the show has toured city after city and country after country; Zuniga describes the process in his blog in the Huffington Post.

‘I want to electrify literature around the world. I want people to come to the event, and see books in a new light. To see that they’re essential and exciting.’ Helsinki wound up on Zuniga’s list after he read one of the FILI (Finnish Literature Exchange) booklets at the London Book Fair: ‘The stories reflected the kind of writing I love most: a little off, surprising, and odd. Beyond that, I love the city, and I’ll take any chance to go there.’

The final round is, as Monty Python put it, ‘something completely different’. Teemu Manninen and Riikka Pulkkinen participate in the ‘Play Your Cards Right’ finale, after which Pulkkinen dances again as a winner. Through a happy coincidence, a visitor from the United States also takes the stage – the best-selling writer Jeffrey Eugenides, who did not understand a word of what he heard. Zuniga admitted, after the Helsinki match, ‘That was the most I’ve not understood.’

By the end of the evening, the palpable hesitation of the Finnish competitors appears to have disappeared. This is encouraged by the brave way in which the evening’s compere, Todd Zuniga – as well as Jeffrey Eugenides are prepared to throw themselves on the mercy of a strange language. At the end of the evening, the main thing is not literature, but having fun. ‘Laughter is like an elixir for me during that event. I love the seriousness of the readings, but ultimately I want the audience to have a great time.’

How would Todd Zuniga rate Literary Death Match Helsinki himself?

‘Nine out of ten. I might think it’s a 10 once I find out what was read! I think of the Helsinki event as one of the best we’ve ever done. Honestly. The energy in the room was palpable. It was magic.’

Translated by Hildi Hawkins


No comments for this entry yet

Leave a comment